Tuesday, 8 January 2013

How the Canadiens shape up as they head into camp

Over the last couple of summers, we've had fun trying to divine how the Canadiens' roster would look as they opened the season.  We'd make up line combinations and defensive pairings, and sprinkle in judicious but putative free agent acquisitions.  I for example campaigned for the addition of Shane O'Brien, and later of Taylor Pyatt.  It was clean, harmless fun to tide us over after the excitement of the draft but before the start of training camps.

This summer it was a harder task, as the opportunity of unloading Scott Gomez onto the Hamilton Bulldogs to nullify his cap hit was dependent on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement allowing this practice to continue.  As we now know, the Canadiens will no longer have this option, the new CBA specifying that players on a one-way contract still count on an NHL team's salary cap total even if they're toiling in the minors.

So our fantasies of clearing Mr. Gomez' $7.4M off the books, and clearing our roster of his trademarked 'charge-into-the-zone, fake-rush-to-the-net, curl-to-the-sideboards' move that fools no one no longer nohow are dashed.  We're stuck with him until next summer.

With not much cap room for this season, accounting for P.K. Subban's new contract still to come, the Canadiens won't have much flexibility to add players.  Also, with a very short training camp, and few if any pre-season games, the opportunity to gauge how the team is doing and adjusting the mix as needed, as Pierre Gauthier tried to do last fall with the in-camp addition of Chris Campoli, will be severely limited.

The strategy used will depend on the outlook Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin have for this season.  It's possible he may think that in a shortened season it's anyone's Cup for the taking, and therefore load up with a few cheap veterans for a playoff run, taking advantage of a Carey Price who should be coming into his prime, and veterans like Erik Cole, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec before it's too late.

Our sense however is that he's a cautious fellow who takes a long view of building a roster.  It's much more likely that he will ride the players he has as far as they'll take him, and he'll see how things shake out.  I don't imagine he'd suffer a team that was buffoonish and gutless; his addition of heart and soul veterans Brandon Prust and Francis Brouillon are good indications of his mindset.  If however the Canadiens tried hard and battled, and new Head Coach Michel Therrien provided new leadership and discipline, but the team again finished at the bottom of the standings, I don't think the brain trust, Trevor Timmins first and foremost, would mind very much.

Another factor to take into consideration is the reinforcements available in Hamilton, which are, lamentably, almost non-existent.  I say this with great hope that the kids now down on the farm will pay great dividends eventually, but not this year.  The evidence is plain to see when watching Bulldogs games or reading the game recaps and boxscores.  No Bulldog is tearing up the league.  None is too good for that level of play, à la Justin Schultz.  Louis Leblanc is having a difficult, unproductive season.  Michaël Bournival is mired in a ten-game slump.  Aaron Palushaj was having an underwhelming campaign before suffering a shoulder injury.

Blake Geoffrion, who seemed to be taking his veteran role on a young team seriously, and who I thought might earn a spot on the Grand Club when the season started, unfortunately suffered a serious head injury, and his career is now on hold.  Greg Pateryn, another older player who I hoped might be able to pitch in later in the season in a third pairing defensive role, is also out with a serious injury, his development stalled.  About the only players who seem like they could pitch in right now are Gabriel Dumont and Mike Blunden, who could be callups for spot duty on the fourth line.

So our best move will be to leave the youngsters in Hamilton to marinate for a full season at least.  Mr. Bergevin's maxim that you rarely regret bringing up a player too late allows us to confidently predict that the crown jewels (Louis Leblanc, Jared Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu) and supporting players will continue playing in the AHL, adapting and developing their skills to a higher level of competition.  They may get an injury callup of a couple of games to 'get a taste', but probably not more than that.

Some will argue that some young players are mentally tough enough to 'take' a season or two of being outgunned in the NHL, until they mature and their skills catch up.  They explain that a young player may benefit from being tempered in the fire of tougher competition right away.  I counter that with the fact that it's not just a mental toughness issue, but also a skill development issue.  If a player feels overwhelmed by the pace of the play, and the toughness of the opponent, he will pick up some bad habits, being forced to tread water.  Sink or swim rarely works, a step by step process of skill acquisition and development is almost always preferred.

Which brings us to the Alex Galchenyuk quandary.  What to do, what to do...

Mr. Galchenyuk does seem to be head and shoulders over the rest of the OHL competition, but I still think he can develop in Sarnia, by playing big minutes in tough situations, and leading his team to the playoffs.  I don't think he'd be wasting his time there, like maybe Jonathan Huberdeau might in St-John.  Another factor to consider is that while he had a strong showing with the US team at the World Juniors, he didn't dominate and seem as if he was NHL-ready.  The fact that he seemed to not be able to gain US Head Coach Phil Housley's full trust, as controversial as that might be, is an indicator that he still has a lot to learn at the junior level.

I think it was Rick Dudley who said that for a player to win an NHL roster spot out of junior, he had to win it cleanly, outright.  If the Canadiens are tempted to plug the giant hole on Tomas Plekanec's left wing with Alex Galchenyuk, let's hope that it will be based on what they see in camp, and not in their dreams.

Finally, we would prefer it if Mr. Bergevin can come to an agreement with Don Meehan and sign P.K. Subban to a contract relatively quickly.  Despite more red flags this off-season as to how P.K. fits in with the rest of the team in the dressing room, he is an undeniable talent who we can't do without.  I don't see the delay in getting him to ink a contract as a snub, but rather as evidence that the new management team is going to be prudent with its dollars and avoid the pitfalls the prior administration repeatedly dove into headfirst.  If Mr. Meehan was as amenable as Lars Eller's agent (again, Lars' contract is curiously cap-friendly for the team), or if P.K. adopted Max Pacioretty's view that getting long-term security was worth a 'hometown' discount' for the Canadiens, the deal would be done already.  As it is, Mr. Meehan and Mr. Bergevin are bargaining hard with each other, which is their prerogative.

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